A Carpet of Flowers, A Carpet of Tears

 

A clever man on the wireless said that whether or not we are aware of it, sleeping or waking, we are smelling smells ALL the time. Continuously and continually, like animals. And we know how wild beasts are: from shrews & field mice to elephants & polar bears, they are in a perpetual state of agitated nervous tension. The olfactory sense is a constant nagging spur to survival. This past week I have been under a veritable bombardment of smells and thereby living on my nerves in consequence.

 

I saw a man mowing down a patch of huge purple violets. I had to ‘say something’: it was like watching a massacre. Well, it was a massacre. He laughed. He said, ‘I thought they were weeds’. But the strange and wonderful thing is, that within just a few days the musky perfumed carpet was all in bloom once more: violetta triumphans! Shy and dainty violets may be; but they are tough and dogged too. I thought of Napoleon Bonaparte and his adoption of violets as his emblem – the violets and the golden bees. I wondered whether the tiny Emperor¤ saw something of himself in the flowers: diminutive, but strong and irresistible, rising up from exile in Elba to throw Europe back into panic and terror.

 

I came back from church last Sunday still pleasantly be-fogged by incense from the thurifer which swung in great arcs over the congregation. I love the look of the perfumed blue clouds as much I do the smell. The scented smoke billows up into the vaulted arches, and wreathes around the gilded angels and painted gargoyles. The incense slowly invades dark corners of the building and steals into the soul. It cannot be kept out. It purifies, sanctifies, cleans and inspires. It lulls you; and it brisks you up.

 

So I walked up the road and the divine gave way to the mundane but comfortable. An echo of the respective roles of SS Mary and Martha who feature so much in the Christian liturgy just now. The woman of worshipful meditation: and her sister, cumbered with domestic industry. Here was the nostalgic savoury smell of Sunday lunches being brought to table. Quite a rare odour nowadays – roast beef or lamb¤¤, gravy and hot horseradish, mint sauce, fatty potatoes, boiled cabbage, smoking oil. All meshing and contrasting with the spring smells of the first lawn mowings, the chilly fresh air, the trumpeting garish daffodils. And of course, a bonfire – the acrid pungent combustion of winter rubbish, so different from the nostalgic smouldering of autumn leaves. A March bonfire sends you rushing out to get the clean laundry off the line and inside. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle goes mad.

 

Many years ago, of a sunny Sunday morning, I used to be wild for the taste and smell – besides the tonic effect – of Cinzano Bianco. The lust for Cinzano maybe grew in turn from infant experiences of my grandfather’s parlour. We used to toddle round after Sunday school. The house below the church has been demolished these past forty years, but in my memory I can still see the great drinks tray laid out with gin, “It”, Martini, Noilly Prat. The fumes of alcohol mingled with those of turps, oil paints and a damply sputtering log fire. When grandpapa had given a cocktail party he would go round afterwards and tip the dregs from all the glasses into one bottle, shake it up and save it for the next Sunday.

“Thrift, thrift Horatio!” – and with quite a kick.

 

Cinzano and Martini take their distinctive aroma from dozens of herbs and spices: “over sixty”, says one label. I guess it is that which makes these beverages smell and taste very like cheese and onion crisps. (Those same crisps they tell us that Mrs May has forsworn for Lent). What an intoxicating combination of contrasts and sharp savoury green & gold odours: the crunchy and the oleaginous; the salty and the unctuous.

 

Shall we end with another carpet, this time of roses? When I attended the recent Fragrance Foundation Jasmine Awards in Piccadilly, the specactacular flowers by Moyses Stevens were not the least of the attractions. A vast urn filled with roses and lilac towered over a table wrist-deep in exquisitely scented rose petals of every shade. I felt pleasantly similar to the flower-drowned victims of Heliogabalus.

 

Not to mention The Babes In The Wood:

 

“And Robin Redbreast Sorrowing

Covered them with – rose – leaves!”

 

¤ did you ever see Bonaparte’s satin shoes, in a glass case at Malmaison? A comfortable fit for a large cat or a hare, I thought.

¤¤ very lean nowadays. Joints look and taste totally different from the gory “marbled meats” of my youth. They look reconstructed, even “dumbed-down”. And do you remember roast mutton? (“Hand onion sauce and redcurrant jelly separately”). Gorgeous: despite the strong smell of wool.

 

…AND NOW:

 

I must enthusiastically and gratefully acknowledge every dear reader, customer and friend of Les Senteurs & of Lemon Wedge who has been so kind as to congratulate this old boy on his recent Jasmine Award.

 

I am so very touched and appreciative of all your warmth, kindness and generosity. THANK YOU, so much.

 

On the day of her Diamond Jubilee, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Princess Marie Louise said to the gallant aged Sovereign:

 

“O, grandmama! How proud you must be!”

 

To which the Queen-Empress replied,

 

“No, dear Child. Very humble”

 

I must confess to being both.

 

Thank you.

Love

James.

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Dream Factories

We know scent and smell have legendary properties in stimulating our memories: I was amazed and greatly moved this weekend to inadvertently recreate a smell that I had lost touch with decades ago. A liberal polishing of the dining room furniture followed by a generous dousing of the room with cedar perfume was laid down to soak for an hour and on re-entering the room I was transported to my grandmother’s house of 55 years ago, the scent of which I had consciously long since forgotten: but it surged back, like an emotional tidal wave with all its associations – the wine velvet curtains; the bolts of wartime black out material (invaluable for dressing up as Anne Boleyn, vicars, the public executioner); the curious smell of an Edwardian can-opener and concomitant traces of tinned grapefruit juice; fifteen minutes of television twice weekly; the slightly sinister innards of the two grandfather clocks; and the faintest hint of horseradish.

And that last note led my memories on to the school library, ten years later, where the dessicated dusty leather book covers and dried ink seemed to emanate a century of Victorian roast beef dinners.

No wonder that perfume shops and fragrance departments in the big stores are such strange, exotic and other-worldly places: crystalline caverns where the emotions, memories, impulses and desires are in a constant state of arousal and stimulation, in a precarious state of control, as unruly, instinctive and feral as ill-trained dogs. Working in such an environment or visiting such magical environments are akin to intensive visits to an over-enthusiastic and prodigal aromatherapist: staff and clients alike need to plan and prepare if they are not to be overwhelmed. Open a window; and “take your heart in both hands”, as the old song says. This is why we have always advised patience and time as key tools for scent selection; as the late great Mona di Orio always said, since a beautiful perfume is created by instinct, so must it be chosen in the same way.

And instinct needs clear channels and confidence in oneself: a freeing of the mind, a delicate concentration, a sublimation of the mundane. Instinct is not impulse, it is recognition of what is right. Rigid self-control and for the beginner expert advice is essential to clear the decks and enable you to smell minimally: grabbing at every bottle in sight is fun but leads to disaster. Ponder on what you desire – whether is be reassurance, self-confidence, sexual allure, the reflection of a loved one or idol, the evocation of place, the finishing touch to a new outfit. Analyse yourself, not the perfume. Watch, wait and listen like the old road safety ads. Wait the perfume out, watch it go through all its phases and tricks, observe what it does to your heart and mind…then pounce!